HBO Max’s latest adaptation of a DC graphic novel confuses haunting worldbuilding with a compelling story.
There’s no good time in history to make war into entertainment. This is possibly one of the worst times to try to do so. Now clearly, the creators of DMZ, HBO Max‘s newest miniseries, had no idea what was going to happen in history when they were creating the show, but there’s a faint bad taste in watching a woman search for her son in a war zone in a time when actual women are doing that actual thing.
DMZ stars Rosario Dawson as Alma, a woman from the United States searching for her son in the demilitarized zone that is Manhattan. The country is in a state of civil war with a separatist nation known as the Free States of America; eight years prior, Alma and her son Christian separated during Manhattan’s evacuation. Why is the country in civil war? No idea. The war is just a backdrop for Alma’s search. Who are the good guys versus the bad guys? There are none. The world-building begins and ends with the DMZ.
In a way, this works for the show–after all, we’re following Alma on her journey, not getting a history lesson. But it also causes the story to exist in an odd sort of bubble. The US and the FSA are glorified boogeymen, a larger evil lurking in the background of the major players and conflicts in the DMZ.
Alma, having searched for her son in both the US and the FSA, considers the DMZ her last resort; she sneaks in with the help of neo-Underground Railroad conductor Mia (Agam Darshi) and a strict countdown in place: meet Mia in 24 hours or remain. The pilot (directed by executive producer Ava DuVernay) operates under this conceit, with Alma’s remaining hours popping up on the screen, but it’s no spoiler to reveal that things don’t go as planned, and Alma ends up spending the entirety of the miniseries’ four episodes in the DMZ. Alma is at first charmed by what the DMZ dwellers have made of their living situation, but it’s swiftly apparent that street fairs and stickball games mask a darker lifestyle.
The DMZ has, as has most post-apocalyptic cities, divided into various gangs: there’s the Spanish Harlem Kings, led by Parco (Benjamin Bratt at his most zaddy) and his enforcer Skel (Freddy Miyares), the residents of Chinatown led by Wilson (Hoon Lee), the tranquil all-female gang over in The Cloisters led by Una (Nora Dunn), and an assortment of other named but never really showcased groups such as the frequently mentioned Artists Collective and a clan of cannibals teased as an urban myth who sadly never make an appearance.
In the hopes of gaining true independence for the DMZ, both Parco and Wilson are running for governor, intending to remove the DMZ from the ongoing war entirely. It’s this political firestorm that Alma wanders into as she searches for Christian by…asking people if they know anyone named Christian. It’s not a great plan.
Though Alma’s story is the main thrust of the series and should seemingly carry the most emotional weight, it’s the side story of DMZ kid Odi (Jordan Preston Carter) that strikes the real chords. Odi befriends Alma at the neighborhood clinic where he goes to get a grilled cheese from the doctor (likely the most food he has in a day) and spends the majority of his time rummaging through abandoned buildings with his friend Nico and trying to be a kid in a place that doesn’t truly allow for it. Dawson is doing strong work as lead Alma, but it’s Carter who brings tears to the audience’s eyes.
Aesthetically, DMZ, though well-done, is nothing we haven’t seen before. Subway stations covered in vines, freed zoo animals wandering parking lots, abandoned tanks. It’s a post-apocalyptic New York City, it is what it is. The best use of the landscape is honestly in a latter episode battle prep sequence, as we see fighters prepping spears and swords made out of sharpened road signs.
After Alma remains in the DMZ following the pilot, the remaining three episodes (directed by Ernest R. Dickerson) never recapture the pressure of that initial countdown. Alma’s connections to some denizens of the DMZ are fairly easy to guess; it’s never clear if writer Roberto Pantino means for them to be gasp-worthy twists (DMZ is based on the comic of the same name by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli but doesn’t share a plot) or if the predictability exists as a framework for the political plot.
It’s also never entirely clear what we’re meant to walk away from the mini-series with. Is it the heartwrenching story of a determined woman looking for her son? Is it a political gangland drama? Is it an indictment of America’s military interventionism, a look at what we leave behind? Is it all of these things? A beautiful muddle, DMZ rests on a collection of strong performances but never feels like it’s telling the story it wants to tell.
DMZ premieres on HBO Max on March 17.